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How Wind Power is Saving Millions During Polar Vortex

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By Michael Goggin

For the second time in two weeks, wind power once again kept consumers’ energy costs down as extreme cold drove energy prices to record highs across much of the eastern U.S.

Electricity and natural gas prices skyrocketed to 10 to 50 times normal across parts of the Mid-Atlantic and Great Lakes states as extreme cold drove demand for electric and gas heating to near-record levels late last week. Fortunately, regional wind energy output was strong throughout these periods of peak demand, producing around 3,000 megawatts (MW) on the evening of Jan. 22 when supply was particularly tight, and roughly 3,000 to 4,000 MW for nearly all of Jan. 23 as electricity prices remained very high.

As the Polar Vortex descended upon Americans across the country this month, wind energy provided strong output during times of peak demand. 
Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

The savings that wind energy provided for consumers last week likely tally in the millions if not tens of millions of dollars, as wind energy reduced consumers’ energy costs in several major ways. Wind energy always provides these savings for consumers, which is why more than a dozen state government, grid operator, and other studies have confirmed that wind energy reduces consumers’ electricity prices.

Graphic credit: U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA)

However, these savings are further magnified when energy prices are high:

  • Most directly, wind energy provided highly valuable electricity when PJM, the regional grid operator, needed it most. During the period of peak demand on Thursday evening, wind energy was providing PJM with 3,500 MW while electricity prices averaged more than $500 per MW hour (MWh), providing direct savings of $1.5 million to $2 million per hour.

  • A potentially far larger impact is that wind energy helped to drive down the market price for all MWh of electricity that are being sold in the market, not just the wind MWh. Grid operators always use zero-fuel cost wind energy to displace output from the most expensive and least efficient power plants that are currently operating. This drives the electricity price for all market participants down, as the market price is now being set by a more efficient and less expensive power plant. Because the supply curve of generation options is typically extremely steep during periods of peak demand (see the illustration above), even a modest amount of additional supply greatly reduces the market electricity prices. Moreover, because this market price applies to all MWh sold in the market, not just the wind MWh, the savings are multiplied again.

  • Through a similar mechanism, additional wind energy supply also reduces prices in natural gas markets, providing savings for all users of natural gas. During these times of peak demand, wind energy was primarily displacing gas use at natural-gas fired power plants. Many areas in the eastern U.S. were at or near record natural gas prices due to weather-driven demand for natural gas for building heating as well as electricity generation. Because the natural gas price curve is also quite steep during times of peak demand, and because the market price applies to all transactions in the market, wind energy likely produced large savings for all natural gas users by driving down the price of natural gas. So even if you primarily use natural gas to heat your home (in addition to electricity to run your furnace fans) you can thank wind energy for helping to keep your heating bill low.

One compelling illustration of these benefits came in a glowing press release from the Nebraska Public Power District (NPPD), describing how a large amount of wind energy output kept energy prices low for their customers during the cold snap two weeks ago. The utility explained that “Nebraskans benefit from NPPD’s diverse portfolio of generating resources. Using a combination of fuels means we deliver electricity using the lowest cost resources while maintaining high reliability for our customers.” The utility also noted that “NPPD did not operate its natural gas generation because the fuel costs were up more than 300 percent over typical prices.”

Another illustration comes from across the Atlantic in Ireland. As we just noted, the Emerald Isle is now green for two additional reasons, as wind energy reduced pollution and protected consumers’ pocketbooks from near-record natural gas prices by providing 24 percent of Ireland’s electricity for all of December.

The Irish Examiner noted two weeks ago that “the sustained wind volumes forced expensive gas powered plants off the system and this provided downward pressure on wholesale prices.” It quotes an energy trader noting that “the substantial contribution of wind energy helped reduce the monthly average wholesale electricity price by 5 percent.” The article further explains that wind energy played a critical role in driving the price of electricity down despite near-record natural gas prices.

Both recent cold snaps also highlight the value of wind energy for diversifying our energy mix, improving energy reliability and reducing energy costs for homes and businesses. Diversity inherently makes the power system more reliable by protecting against the unexpected failures that afflict all energy sources from time to time. PJM noted that dozens of power plants of all types failed during the last cold snap, and during this cold snap PJM experienced the abrupt and unexpected failure of several nuclear power plants.

The New York grid operator also highlighted that it received very high wind output when it needed it most during the last cold snap, while other forms of generation experienced a variety problems. While wind energy output does change with the wind speed, such changes occur far more slowly than the unexpected outages that frequently occur at large conventional power plants. Moreover, changes in wind energy output are predictable using weather forecasting, while conventional power plant failures are not, making them far more difficult and costly for grid operators to accommodate.

Wind energy output has been very strong throughout both recent cold spells in the Eastern U.S., keeping the lights on and saving consumers millions of dollars by keeping both electricity prices and natural gas prices in check. Wind power diversifies our energy mix during both extreme weather and normal conditions, providing consumers with more reliable and lower cost energy.

Visit EcoWatch’s RENEWABLES page for more related news on this topic.

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The patient in the case report (let's call him Tom) was 54 and in good health. For two days in May, he felt unwell and was too weak to get out of bed. When his family finally brought him to the hospital, doctors found that he had a fever and signs of a severe infection, or sepsis. He tested positive for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 infection. In addition to symptoms of COVID-19, he was also too weak to move his legs.

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We are neurologists specializing in intensive care and leading studies related to neurological complications from COVID-19. Given the occurrence of Guillain-Barre Syndrome in prior pandemics with other corona viruses like SARS and MERS, we are investigating a possible link between Guillain-Barre Syndrome and COVID-19 and tracking published reports to see if there is any link between Guillain-Barre Syndrome and COVID-19.

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What Is Guillain-Barre Syndrome?

Guillain-Barre syndrome occurs when the body's own immune system attacks and injures the nerves outside of the spinal cord or brain – the peripheral nervous system. Most commonly, the injury involves the protective sheath, or myelin, that wraps nerves and is essential to nerve function.

Without the myelin sheath, signals that go through a nerve are slowed or lost, which causes the nerve to malfunction.

To diagnose Guillain-Barre Syndrome, neurologists perform a detailed neurological exam. Due to the nerve injury, patients often may have loss of reflexes on examination. Doctors often need to perform a lumbar puncture, otherwise known as spinal tap, to sample spinal fluid and look for signs of inflammation and abnormal antibodies.

Studies have shown that giving patients an infusion of antibodies derived from donated blood or plasma exchange – a process that cleans patients' blood of harmful antibodies - can speed up recovery. A very small subset of patients may need these therapies long-term.

The majority of Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients improve within a few weeks and eventually can make a full recovery. However, some patients with Guillain-Barre Syndrome have lingering symptoms including weakness and abnormal sensations in arms and/or legs; rarely patients may be bedridden or disabled long-term.

Guillain-Barre Syndrome and Pandemics

As the COVID-19 pandemic sweeps across the globe, many neurologic specialists have been on the lookout for potentially serious nervous system complications such as Guillain-Barre Syndrome.

Though Guillain-Barre Syndrome is rare, it is well known to emerge following bacterial infections, such as Campylobacter jejuni, a common cause of food poisoning, and a multitude of viral infections including the flu virus, Zika virus and other coronaviruses.

Studies showed an increase in Guillain-Barre Syndrome cases following the 2009 H1N1 flu pandemic, suggesting a possible connection. The presumed cause for this link is that the body's own immune response to fight the infection turns on itself and attacks the peripheral nerves. This is called an "autoimmune" condition. When a pandemic affects as many people as our current COVID-19 crisis, even a rare complication can become a significant public health problem. That is especially true for one that causes neurological dysfunction where the recovery takes a long time and may be incomplete.

The first reports of Guillain-Barre Syndrome in COVID-19 pandemic originated from Italy, Spain and China, where the pandemic surged before the U.S. crisis.

Though there is clear clinical suspicion that COVID-19 can lead to Guillain-Barre Syndrome, many important questions remain. What are the chances that someone gets Guillain-Barre Syndrome during or following a COVID-19 infection? Does Guillain-Barre Syndrome happen more often in those who have been infected with COVID-19 compared to other types of infections, such as the flu?

The only way to get answers is through a prospective study where doctors perform systematic surveillance and collect data on a large group of patients. There are ongoing large research consortia hard at work to figure out answers to these questions.

Understanding the Association Between COVID-19 and Guillain-Barre Syndrome

While large research studies are underway, overall it appears that Guillain-Barre Syndrome is a rare but serious phenomenon possibly linked to COVID-19. Given that more than 10.7 million cases have been reported for COVID-19, there have been 10 reported cases of COVID-19 patients with Guillain-Barre Syndrome so far – only two reported cases in the U.S., five in Italy, two cases in Iran and one from Wuhan, China.

It is certainly possible that there are other cases that have not been reported. The Global Consortium Study of Neurological Dysfunctions in COVID-19 is actively underway to find out how often neurological problems like Guillain-Barre Syndrome is seen in hospitalized COVID-19 patients. Also, just because Guillain-Barre Syndrome occurs in a patient diagnosed with COVID-19, that does not imply that it was caused by the virus; this still may be a coincident occurrence. More research is needed to understand how the two events are related.

Due to the pandemic and infection-containment considerations, diagnostic tests, such as a nerve conduction study that used to be routine for patients with suspected Guillain-Barre Syndrome, are more difficult to do. In both U.S. cases, the initial diagnosis and treatment were all based on clinical examination by a neurological experts rather than any tests. Both patients survived but with significant residual weakness at the time these case reports came out, but that is not uncommon for Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients. The road to recovery may sometimes be long, but many patients can make a full recovery with time.

Though the reported cases of Guillain-Barre Syndrome so far all have severe symptoms, this is not uncommon in a pandemic situation where the less sick patients may stay home and not present for medical care for fear of being exposed to the virus. This, plus the limited COVID-19 testing capability across the U.S., may skew our current detection of Guillain-Barre Syndrome cases toward the sicker patients who have to go to a hospital. In general, the majority of Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients do recover, given enough time. We do not yet know whether this is true for COVID-19-related cases at this stage of the pandemic. We and colleagues around the world are working around the clock to find answers to these critical questions.

Sherry H-Y. Chou is an Associate Professor of Critical Care Medicine, Neurology, and Neurosurgery, University of Pittsburgh.

Aarti Sarwal is an Associate Professor, Neurology, Wake Forest University.

Neha S. Dangayach is an Assistant Professor of Neurology and Neurosurgery, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

Disclosure statement: Sherry H-Y. Chou receives funding from The University of Pittsburgh Clinical Translational Science Institute (CTSI), the National Institute of Health, and the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine Dean's Faculty Advancement Award. Sherry H-Y. Chou is a member of Board of Directors for the Neurocritical Care Society. Neha S. Dangayach receives funding from the Bee Foundation, the Friedman Brain Institute, the Neurocritical Care Society, InCHIP-UConn Center for mHealth and Social Media Seed Grant. She is faculty for emcrit.org and for AiSinai. Aarti Sarwal does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Reposted with permission from The Conversation.


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"We've moved the needle a lot, especially on environmental justice and upping Biden's ambition," said Sunrise Movement co-founder and executive director Varshini Prakash, a member of the Biden-Sanders Climate Task Force. "But there's still more work to do to push Democrats to act at the scale of the climate crisis."

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In a series of tweets Wednesday night, Ocasio-Cortez—the lead sponsor of the House Green New Deal resolution—noted that the Climate Task Force "shaved 15 years off Biden's previous target for 100% clean energy."

"Of course, like in any collaborative effort, there are areas of negotiation and compromise," said the New York Democrat. "But I do believe that the Climate Task Force effort meaningfully and substantively improved Biden's positions."

 

The 110 pages of policy recommendations from the six eight-person Unity Task Forces on education, the economy, criminal justice, immigration, climate change, and healthcare are aimed at shaping negotiations over the 2020 Democratic platform at the party's convention next month.

Sanders said that while the "end result isn't what I or my supporters would've written alone, the task forces have created a good policy blueprint that will move this country in a much-needed progressive direction and substantially improve the lives of working families throughout our country."

"I look forward to working with Vice President Biden to help him win this campaign," the Vermont senator added, "and to move this country forward toward economic, racial, social, and environmental justice."

Biden, for his part, applauded the task forces "for helping build a bold, transformative platform for our party and for our country."

"I am deeply grateful to Bernie Sanders for working with us to unite our party and deliver real, lasting change for generations to come," said the former vice president.

On the life-or-death matter of reforming America's dysfunctional private health insurance system—a subject on which Sanders and Biden clashed repeatedly throughout the Democratic primary process—the Unity Task Force affirmed healthcare as "a right" but did not embrace Medicare for All, the signature policy plank of the Vermont senator's presidential bid.

Instead, the panel recommended building on the Affordable Care Act by establishing a public option, investing in community health centers, and lowering prescription drug costs by allowing the federal government to negotiate prices. The task force also endorsed making all Covid-19 testing, treatments, and potential vaccines free and expanding Medicaid for the duration of the pandemic.

"It has always been a crisis that tens of millions of Americans have no or inadequate health insurance—but in a pandemic, it's potentially catastrophic for public health," the task force wrote.

Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, a former Michigan gubernatorial candidate and Sanders-appointed member of the Healthcare Task Force, said that despite major disagreements, the panel "came to recommendations that will yield one of the most progressive Democratic campaign platforms in history—though we have further yet to go."

 

Observers and advocacy groups also applauded the Unity Task Forces for recommending the creation of a postal banking system, endorsing a ban on for-profit charter schools, ending the use of private prisons, and imposing a 100-day moratorium on deportations "while conducting a full-scale study on current practices to develop recommendations for transforming enforcement policies and practices at ICE and CBP."

Marisa Franco, director of immigrant rights group Mijente, said in a statement that "going into these task force negotiations, we knew we were going to have to push Biden past his comfort zone, both to reconcile with past offenses and to carve a new path forward."

"That is exactly what we did, unapologetically," said Franco, a member of the Immigration Task Force. "For years, Mijente, along with the broader immigrant rights movement, has fought to reshape the narrative around immigration towards racial justice and to focus these very demands. We expect Biden and the Democratic Party to implement them in their entirety."

"There is no going back," Franco added. "Not an inch, not a step. We must only move forward from here."

Reposted with permission from Common Dreams.